Thursday, September 27, 2007


Flight of Fancy

Previously on Top Chef: Catering challenge. On a boat. Howie toned it down. The guest judge harshed on Howie's cigars. Casey was totally under budget. She won. Howie confronted the judges and mercifully got the boot before he could address any more juding panels.

Morning in Miami. The chefs are all tucked up, all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar plums dance in their heads. But all the beddy-bye shots have a point, for once, as Padma tiptoes in and friskily rouses the chefs from bed. Well, until she reaches the room with three guys in it, and she skips the cover yanking and the tickling. Casey recaps. CJ jokes, "My dream's come true!" It's all very cute. Padma's clearly a morning person. And we don't see anyone throw anything at her, so I guess the chefs are mostly morning people, too. Dale predicts a breakfast challenge. What are the odds?

QuickFire challenge: Out in the living area are tables with stations. Each chef gets a blender, a butane burner and some basic kitchen gear. Padma demands breakfast in 20 minutes. The legal ingredients have been set up in their kitchen. Sara laughs about how everyone had to cook in their jammies. Does anything throw her? "So there we were, dangling by our feet from knotted shoelaces above a tank of starving sharks -- it was hilarious!" And go!

The chefs rush the counter to grab ingredients. Hung tips over a bottle of oil and it smashes on the floor, but he's halfway across the room before it goes crash. Casey describes the chaos, and we know she's not good at chaos. She points out that none of them were wearing sturdy footgear -- some of them didn't have footgear at all -- so the broken glass was a problem. Hung doesn't think he broke the bottle, but he's sorry if he did. Not sorry enough to throw a towel over it, though. He doesn't care about what anyone else thinks; he's just there to push himself harder. He closes the refrigerator and a couple of peppers(?) are left lying on the ground. Perhaps the poor little crawfish that fell awry can crawl over and keep them company. I'm pretty sure Hung doesn't run around like this at his real job, but it's interesting how he leaves a trail of detritus across the kitchen.

Dale has a good history with breakfast, having won Best Brunch in Chicago, but his brunch repetoire takes a lot of prep. Hung doesn't eat breakfast that often since he's always rushing off to work. But it's the most important meal of the day! His ingredients include "a little alcohol, for pep." Breakfast of champions. If that's his idea of breakfast, perhaps he is better off skipping it. Sara laughs that they know their judge likes alcohol. Also mascarpone cheese and healthy stuff like whole grains. She's going "rustic." Casey was trained by her French grandmother, so she's making a quick salsa. No, really, it fits with the flavor combinations Grandmere taught her. CJ is going with crÍpes, because chicks dig crÍpes. His is not to wonder why, he's just rolling with it. Brian thinks it's time to bring it, unlike all those other challenges. Time's up!

Padma congratulates the chefs and asks if they had fun. Of course, they have to say yes. And they haven't gotten any breakfast yet, while Padma has gotten six breakfasts. I'd be cranky. That's why I'm not on TV. CJ thinks Hung breaking the oil was probably not a fun part, though. Hung doesn't react. Padma picks her favorites: Hung for a light version of steak & eggs, plus a yummy smoothie, and Sara for "heavenly" eggs in a hole. The winner exploited the blender and incorporated a broad flavor profile -- and it's Hung! He's happy to have fun and win, both in the same challenge for once. Dale decides it wasn't so much the booze as it was winning Padma over to steak & eggs. Padma awards Hung with a copy of her new cookbook. He's polite about it.

The Elimination challenge will have to wait. They'll be traveling until they reach Aspen. Padma turns plane tickets over Hung to distribute to the chefs. Casey refuses to guess what's up. Hung hands out the tickets, but apparently they've all agreed (prompted or not) to look at the destination at the same time. On the count of three, they open up the tickets. Then they jump around and cheer. They're going to New York! Sara recaps, in case you failed to her "New York" amidst all the squealing. CJ's ready for his first authentic slice of pizza. Now that Dale has made it to the top six, he's aiming for the top four. One step at a time. Well, two steps, actually, but he's not getting too far ahead of himself. The chefs pack.Casey is proud of herself; they should all be proud of themselves. Brian eulogizes Miami. CJ just wants to cook his best.

Plane trip. Landing. Newark Airport. And there's Padma, waiting at the gate. The chefs do not take this as a good omen. And they're right. Somebody won't make it to Manhattan. The next challenge will be right at the airport. They at least get to spend the night at a local hotel before diving into things. CJ and Dale mope.

Morning. The chefs file into a giant building at the airport, which turns out to be full of food service carts. Somewhere along the way, the chefs have been issued shower caps, purporting to be hairnets. Padma's wearing one, too, but she left her bangs sticking out. But she's not cooking, so no health code violations there. She introduces the product-placed food services chef, Gerry McLoughlin, who will teach them the ins and outs of airline cooking. They'll each put together a yummy meal for hungry travelers. At least the ones that can afford first class. Brian has never gotten real airplane food. As QuickFire winner, Hung gets to pick his protein first, which is then off-limits to everyone else.

The tour begins. The airline chef shows off some meals as they would be presented to the passengers, and then as they are packaged up for loading. The package is only 2 inches tall. They have to cook their food for at least 10 minutes in the galley oven. Sara recaps that they have 2 hours to work. Hung chooses sea bass, which is too oily to dry out. Dale is going populist. CJ, healthy. Brian, rich. The chefs try to figure out where everything is. CJ tries to hack open a can with his knife. Everyone jostles for burner space.

With 45 minutes to go, Chef Tom walks through. Brian mentions the burner contention. Hung also brings it up, interrupting his chat to rescue his sautÈ pans. CJ deadpans that he's "excited" about the challenge -- "First of all, I get to wear this hat." He thinks the timing is the hardest part of the challenge. Casey agrees; since everything is being cooked in the same container, you want to make sure all the parts come out okay. Sara is trying to keep everything moist. Dale and Chef Tom agree that good food can be had in an airplane. If you pay enough for your seat. Or bring your own.

Chef Tom recaps that the kitchen contention is causing stress. He thinks meat is a better choice than fish, which is easier to overcook. But overall, "If good food goes into that box, good food should come out of that box." And then go into the oven, which is the tricky part. Time ticks. CJ's off in another corner of the kitchen. Brian wonders if he's packing his cart. Meanwhile, Hung is cleaning up. "No matter what, you don't let the person next to you go down," Dale lectures. He thinks Hung isn't a team player, which reflects badly on his character. Casey asks CJ if he needs help and heads over. Hung points out that CJ never asked for help. So presumably he would have helped if asked. It's not a team challenge, so Hung has no obligation to help someone else -- but as Dale said, the competition is more satisfying (to the viewers, at least) if everyone has a complete entry. Time's up!

The chefs enter a giant hangar to find a Boeing 777 and the judges. The guest judge is Jimmy Canora, one of the product-placed airlines chefs. Sitting in for Gail is Anthony Bourdain. Where was Ted? And of course, Chef Tom, who's channeling Samuel L. Jackson with a backwards Kangol cap to go with his leather bomber jacket. Granted, Chef Tom is something of a bad ass, but he isn't in Samuel L. Jackson bad ass territory. I want him as a judge some day. Also taking part are a whole flock of "elite" flight attendants, meaning they serve the high-paying customers up front instead of the slobs in coach. Dale is remined of "the ants from the Tom & Jerry cartoon" as they file aboard. The plane has two galleys, so two chefs will serve at the same time. Padma sits with Chef Jimmy, while Chef Tom sits with Tony Bourdain. If I were a teacher, I'd split those two up so fast.

First up are Dale and Brian. They struggle with the equipment. Brian fetches CJ to help plate while Dale works with Casey.

Padma thanks all the flight attendants, then heads back to threaten the chefs with judging. Casey doesn't want to get left behind. Dale worries, but everyone had problems. CJ thinks the competition has shaken him out ohf his sleepy comfort zone. Sara thinks they're all at risk.

Judges' Table. Padma starts with Dale. Everyone approves, except for the missing plate. Brian next. Chef Tom complains about the overcooked steaks, but the hash was worse. Bourdain agrees, "The lobster was rubbery." Everyone was pleased with Hung's sea bass. Bourdain observes that he did a variation on a "Basque classic." Casey also gets universal approval. Bourdain points out that she showed chef-like qualities, rather than just cook-like qualities. Sara's turn. Bourdain complains about his dried-out salmon and everyone piles onto the badly-conceived couscous. CJ's fish escaped being overcooked, but not by much. Chef Tom can't believe he served the broccolini. (In an interview, CJ says he didn't want to but somebody in production said he had to.) Back in the makeshift waiting area, Brian says that no matter how things turn out, "It was a pleasure meeting you guys." CJ and Sara agree.

Padma fetches Hung, Casey and Dale. Yep, they're the top three. She tells Dale his steak was "delicious." Bourdain says it was well-executed and, while not original, "a proven crowd-pleaser." Dale confesses to just getting stuck on seventeen instead of eighteen. Anybody think he's gonna win? Me neither. Padma brings up Hung's choice of protein, which he points out is impossible to overcook. The airline chef agrees it was a good choice. Padma tells Casey that her meal was well-composed. Bourdain liked all the flavors. The guest judge gives the win to Casey. She wins two round-trip business/first tickets on the product-placed airline. Casey realizes that she was middling in the early stage of the competition, but now she's picking up momentum.

So Brian, CJ and Sara know they're destined for a chewing out. CJ wonders what Bourdain will be like. "Oh God, evil," Sara predicts. The top three return and Casey gets congratulations. The top three wish the bottom three luck before sending out to be shot. Or something. Sara confesses to having some fish cooked more than others; she should have been more even with her portions. But she was pleased with her leek fondue. Bourdain lives up to expectations, describing his salmon as "beyond overcooked" and comparing it to cat food. I hope he means kibble, because I look inside a can of cat food every day, and it's pretty moist in there. Padma is puzzled by the flavorless couscous. CJ admits right off, "I don't think mine went very well." The judges won't argue. CJ thinks he had a good idea, but he needed more execution. Bourdain goes after the whole broccolini thought process, calling the result "horrifying." Chef Tom wonders if this should get CJ sent home, which of course CJ refutes -- it was a good idea, just not well executed. But yes, he's worried, being before the judges "with these three people." And yeah, Brian might count as two, but I think CJ just got tangled up thinking "bottom three." Brian suspects he's being dinged for his large portions, so he has no idea what was wrong. Chef Tom tells him, "You're here because that hash was disgusting." Well, just lay it right out there, dude. Bourdain confirms, "The lobster had the texture of doll head." Wonder what exotic tribe serves those up? Brian's like, "Okay, you always pick on my lobster, so I'll stop with the lobster." It's not the lobster, you doofus, it's the overcooked lobster. Brian doesn't think this should be the end of him, either.

The chefs go away, the judges review. First up, they're surprised by Brian's surprise. Bourdain wonders why he didn't realize the lobster was a failure. Chef Tom doesn't care if it's airplane food or restaurant food, terrible food is terrible. Sara's salmon was too dry; Chef Tom seems about to launch into a diatribe on the couscous when Padma's like, "Yeah, we get it." CJ thinks the critcism was fair because it was about the food; he's guessing he and Sara are the least favorites. Sara admits that the criticism of her couscous being an "afterthought" is entirey correct. Bourdain can't understand why CJ served his overcooked broccolini. Chef Tom proclaims it the Worst Dish Ever in all three seasons. Which sounds like hyperbole, but I didn't have to eat it.

The bottom three return. Chef Tom spanks Sara for overcooked salmon and ill-conceived couscous, CJ for overcooked halibut and truly wretched broccolini, and Brian for his "terrible" hash. Padma looks like she's going to cry when she gives CJ the boot. He seems to have been expecting it. He thanks the judges for all the feedback and for the opportunity; it's been educational. He gets hugs from his fellow chefs and they do their usual applause for the departing chef. CJ is looking ahead to his future opportunities, like maybe opening a restaurant and hopefully drinking with Bourdain and badmouthing the broccolini some more.

Right winner? The post-show commentary indicates that Casey won for her daring, since veal was riskier than sea bass. I think it's better to be smart than lucky, which is why I'd go for Hung's sea bass. But they both did well, so good for them. And Dale needs to get his head together.

Right loser? The judges really had it out for CJ's broccolini, so it's no surprise. I'll miss his dry sense of humor, but I didn't have him pegged for the finals, so I'll live.


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